Friend or foe? National guardsmen prepare for the worst

By Julie Fann
star staff

At summer camp, discovering who your real friends are means nothing more than a psychological rite of passage, right? -- a battle between imagination and reality that only seems to be life-threatening. Hopefully.
   For members of Carter County National Guard Unit 776, this year's summer camp in Fort Irwin, Calif., explored a line between friend and foe that isn't necessarily imaginary; it could be very real.
   "I've been in the guard for 21 years, and let's just say, this was a rough one," said Maintenance Company First Sgt. Thomas Hughes. "It was more realistic. It was a real-world mission."
   Hughes said training involved a lot of improvisational role-playing to prepare for a terrorist event such as a suicide bomber or an enemy disguised as a civilian.
   "The whole approach was, the enemy could be anyone," said Sgt. Larry Brown. He and Sgt. Joel Oliver described re-enacting events where it could be difficult to determine who, exactly, the enemy is.
   For example, the men described a mock situation involving a civilian woman seeking asylum. The woman was instructed to approach the fort's gate, and guardsmen had to determine whether she was adversarial by following guidelines called, in the military, "rules of engagement."
   "I can't go into what those were. We just try to provide help to people and be the good Samaritan," Hughes said.
   The events of Sept. 11 transformed the minds of everyone, including the military, whose goal is to protect citizens from dangers both potential and real. But what happens when the line that separates soldier from civilian becomes blurred?
   "It's just, you know, times change, and you've got to change with them; it's (war training) more generalized now," Hughes said.
   Every two years, National Guardsmen from across the country attend the training approximately 200 miles east of Los Angeles in the middle of hot, desert-like terrain. Vehicles are transported by rail and soldiers by civilian air.
   At this kind of summer camp, there is no relief from the elements either. Brown and Oliver said the temperature usually ranged between 105 to 115 degrees.
   "I bought a thermometer in a store and put it on a hummer, and it busted it at 120," Oliver said. Add to the heat having to wear long sleeves, carry a weapon and haul equipment all day long.
   Maintenance Unit 776 has the responsibility of repairing and maintaining wheeled vehicles during warfare. Brown and Oliver said they did most of their work in the early morning and late evening, when it was coolest.
   Luckily, the men had their own transportable kitchen and only had to eat MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) once a day. MRE meals, sealed in a bag ready to heat by just adding cold water, have gourmet names, according to Brown and Oliver, without the gourmet flavor.
   "I usually stick to something regular, like meatloaf. Anything with a weird, fancy name (like chicken tetrazzini or cheese tortellini) tastes awful," Oliver said.
   Brown and Oliver depicted another "imaginary" scene: three civilian "refugees" with a package containing a bomb approach the guardsmen. The civilians drop the package, and six soldiers are killed. Only, at summer camp, dying isn't real, of course.
   "They just point at you and say, 'You're dead,'" Brown said. "Then you fill out a lot of paperwork." The training began on May 25 and ended June 8.